Animal rights #4: on bestiality
(This post continues the previous animal rights discussion: 1, 2 and 3.)
Steve Edwards (The Raving Wingnut) extends the logic of animals having no rights to reach the following conclusion:
“There are, of course, far more disturbing ramifications from my line of argument, but being a guy who generally feels an obligation to argue things through and countenance the inevitable implications of his logic, I shall have no choice but to admit the following: due to my reasoning, there can be no legal prohibitions on bestiality!”One should recognise firstly that Steve is not arguing against extending consideration to animals. Indeed, I believe it is impossible for him to argue against affording animals some consideration as living beings.1 It would be the social equivalent of arguing that the Earth is flat, or that paedophilia should be encouraged.2 What he rightly argues is that animals have no a priori rights, nor can they be given rights (because animals cannot take on any accompanying responsibility).
Secondly, we should note that it is not entirely relevant to this discussion that bestiality is despicable. What is of main concern is the harm to the animal.3 This is a logical conclusion of my contention that it is impossible to argue against extending consideration to animals. To focus only on bestiality would be to become a member of the ‘moral police’. If legislation is needed to realise the common sense view that animal abuse is wrong then that legislation should be exclusively focused on preventing harm to the animal. Whether a ban is needed is more of an empirical question, and goes back to what happens when you legalise any previously illegal activity (you can now regulate it). Personally, I don’t think a ban is needed, for reasons I will outline in a later post.
While bestiality shouldn’t be the main issue, we do need to justify picking on bestiality in the first place. After all, couldn’t killing animals for food be said to be a form of abuse? There are a couple of reasons which I will elaborate on in my next post. For now let’s just say bestiality is less useful to society than meat-eating or other ways in which we use animals (eg. laboratory experiments). I freely admit there is a moral element to this discussion.
The issue is how best to achieve an accepted goal
Steve implicitly recognises two things by saying:
“So basically, if you want to torture your own dog to death for fun I'll call you a sick freak, but I'm afraid I cannot think of any particularly compelling reason to ban this kind of cruelty in itself.”By calling an animal abuser a ‘sick freak’ Steve firstly indicates he is not prepared to argue that torture of animals, or bestiality for that matter, is a perfectly normal and acceptable activity. That is his admission bestiality is wrong. Second, and more importantly, his statement implicitly tells us that he does consider it ‘cruelty’ to torture an animal to death. What this means is he recognises that it is cruelty and therefore harm occurs. This is relevant to the second point I have made above (about disregarding the bestiality element and focussing on the harm to the animal).
Despite there being no logically justifiable position for animals having ‘rights’ (a position I agree with), Steve’s description of ‘cruelty’ tells us he, like every decent person on this planet, does not think animals are so beneath regard that they should be afforded no consideration whatsoever, even if they are private property. That is the hidden premise in his statement, and in all debate over animal welfare. Would he describe it as ‘cruelty’ if it were an inanimate object? I think not.
Why it’s impossible for Steve to argue 'against'
That animals should be afforded some consideration is a matter of common sense. The issue is how best to achieve this undeniable goal, and what competing interests need to be balanced. Steve’s own human nature tells him there’s something wrong. Either that, or he is not prepared to go on record as supporting bestiality even though there is no logical way to reach the conclusion that animal abuse is bad (since animals have no rights). The position opposed to affording some basic consideration to animals is an unarguable one, hence the frustration expressed in Steve’s second statement above. For elaboration on this line of argument, I would refer interested readers to Brian Scarlett's work.
A common logical problem?
Similar philosophical frustration occurs in formal logic. This is the problem with having a hidden, unarguable, premise. As an example4 take the argument:
The Prime Minister collects clocks.
Anyone who collects clocks has to be slightly mad.
Therefore, someone is slightly mad.
Here one can identify a couple of hidden premises.
1. You can’t be a Prime Minister without being a citizen (Sue v Hill tells us that much).
2. So the Prime Minister is a citizen.
3. If the Prime Minister is a citizen, then he’s a person (because you can’t be a citizen without being a person).
Even in these propositions I’ve made some hidden assumptions. For example, I’ve assumed the Prime Minister is a Member of Parliament. Everyone agrees with that. It’s an unarguable position. In philosophical logic hidden premises (which everyone agrees with, and which when added to the premises of an argument will render the argument valid) are dealt with by adding propositions known as enthymemes. Without going into all the symbolic mumbo jumbo, the basic point is that hidden, unarguable, premises need to be factored into discussions such as this. I think this is the best way to analyse this dilemma. If I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will smack me down accordingly.
 Two points: Firstly, I’m talking about humans abusing animals, not animals abusing other animals. The fact that we are superior beings allows us to have this discussion and change our response to undesirable behaviour. We can’t stop animals from sexually abusing other animals for fun. Second, I’m mostly referring to bigger beings. It would be quite difficult to abuse smaller beings such as termites, ants or snails, and few people own them. More common are farm animals such as horses.
 A more complex issue which I raised with Steve earlier is whether consensual cannibalism should be legalised.
 This is the main concern. You cannot argue against this position in today’s society. The very fact that Steve and I are writing articles on animal welfare indicates we care enough.
 Taken from Greg Restall's book on Logic.